I love Wisconsin, but here I’m known as a FIB. The “I” stands for Illinois. You can figure out the rest. Generally speaking, the title is often well-deserved, though hopefully not by me.
In Chicago, I was a Republican election judge, until it looked like I might get arrested – or at least be stripped of my license to practice law.
So when I was asked to be a poll watcher in Milwaukee in 2004, I volunteered. Compared to Chicago, I figured Milwaukee would be a cakewalk.
Boy, was I wrong.
I can’t claim to have witnessed much outright voter fraud in polling places in either Chicago or Milwaukee. Few people ever do see it, anywhere, because outright voter fraud is largely invisible and undetectable, especially in polling places.
That’s because outright voter fraud is most easily accomplished by tampering with the lists of registered voters prepared ahead of time. Getting unqualified or fake or dead voters registered on those lists upfront is relatively easy, particularly when groups like ACORN are deputized as voter registrars in get-out-the-vote drives.
Then, local and state election officials enable fraud. Either accidentally or on purpose, they are careless in adding new registered voters to the official lists without checking or in failing to remove duplicate names or the names of persons who have moved or are dead. But in the polling place on election day, any such fraud is largely undetectable. Voters arrive and give their names, and, as long as the names are on the list, cast their ballots. Except in Wisconsin. There, same-day registration is in effect. More on that below and in Polling Place Chaos: Part 2 – Wisconsin.
In Chicago, of course, there was always suspicion of ballot tampering. While I voted there, the punch card system was in use. To tamper with those cards would have had to involve substitution of fake, fraudulently-punched cards for the real ones. Or maybe tampering with the computer program that tallied votes. Such illegality could only take place in City Hall election central, where only a closed circle of insiders would know about it. Despite lots of jabber about such tampering, to my knowledge, it’s never been proven to have taken place.
But I did witness polling place chaos in both Milwaukee and Chicago. The chaos in the Chicago precinct where I was an election judge was, I’m convinced, deliberately induced by clever Democrats.
But the chaos in Milwaukee – indeed in the entire state of Wisconsin – was worse and more insidious, because the identification needed to register to vote in the polling place on the same day as the election is flimsy and easily faked. More on this in Part 2 of my post.
In Chicago, though, the polling place chaos was diabolically clever, I decided later. It had nothing to do with polling place voter registration – there’s no such thing in Illinois as same-day registration. Nor did I see any ballot-tampering.
Initially, there was the location of the polling place to which I was assigned. It was in a halfway house for the mentally-impaired. Hundreds of residents of the 40-story high-rise condo building next door had to vote there, in addition to halfway house residents.
I was appointed as a Republican election judge there by the Cook County Republican Party. The three other judges were all appointed by the Democratic ward committeeman – not only the two Democrats but also the other Republican.
The two acknowledged Democratic election judges were residents of the halfway house; the other judge – supposedly the other Republican one – had just been released from it.
All three were sweet, kind individuals, and I never for a moment doubted their honesty. But they were mentally limited. They certainly did not comprehend how to set up a polling place. And I’m convinced that’s exactly why the Daley machine Democratic precinct committeeman appointed them.
We all arrived two hours before the polls were supposed to open. Getting the polling place set up quickly became a nightmare. Voting machines to extract from shipping containers and set up. The machines consisted of aluminum briefcases, with four slots into which the legs were to be inserted. They wobbled. They collapsed.
Then the curtains for the voting booths had to be hung. The ballot pages pressed into place. Official voter registration volumes unpacked. Tables. Chairs. The flag out front. The voter registration list to be posted on the door. On and on.
The other three election judges could not be asked to do two tasks in sequence, like: hang the flag on the outside front wall and then go scotch-tape the voter registration list to the front door. They could comprehend only one task at a time.
So, of course, we were two hours late in opening. Hundreds of the condo building residents were lined up outside before the doors opened, trying to vote early and get to work.
Right about then, as we opened up to long lines outside, the halfway house orderlies began bringing down nearly unconscious residents, drugged until they couldn’t stand on their own, let alone walk. They flooded the polling place, blocking everyone else from voting. Each and every one of them needed physical assistance because they were unable to use the stylus to punch the card.
I begged the orderlies to wait to bring their patients down to vote until after the early morning rush-hour. Providing physical assistance meant one election judge from each party had to be present in the booth, in addition to the supporting orderlies. Each vote took at least 15 minutes to cast, but often much longer. Each one had to say out loud the name of the candidate for whom they wished to vote.
I remember one resident who was physically impaired (likely by thorazine, I later learned, to keep him calm) – to the point that he couldn’t walk and almost couldn’t talk. “Vote, vote,” he said, “I vote.”
“I know, I know,” I told him. “But you have to tell me the name of the candidate or point to it. You can’t vote unless you can do that.” Finally he managed to utter the name of the man he supported for president.
Later, I cried. Something was very wrong when residents of a facility designed to transition them to the broader community were drugged beyond belief. Thorazine kept this guy calm but imprisoned in his own body. As I look back, the guy was probably lucky to be there; many seriously-ill mental patients had been released to the streets by the state of Illinois, where they were homeless and dying. But at that moment, all I could do was help one guy cast his vote. And it took about half an hour, while the lines got longer.
I went to the halfway house administrators to beg for their cooperation. I promised them that the residents would have uninhibited access and all the physical assistance they needed, if only they could wait until after the morning rush-hour when the employed were done voting.
They were outraged by my request. “Why,” the administrators asked me, “should our residents be deprived of the choice to vote at the time of their choosing? They accused me of discriminating against the disabled. That was illegal. I could be prosecuted. I was trying to do the right thing. But, of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Meanwhile, the late opening of our polling place had been reported to election authorities. Two county prosecutors arrived, and they clearly suspected something criminal was going on. Inspectors from independent Project LEAP (“Legal Elections in All Precincts”) arrived. Our alleged polling place failings were broadcast on the radio. The lines outside got longer.
I explained everything as best I could. I was terrified and embarrassed. I contacted county Republicans, who said there was nothing they could do. So I was on my own.
I was never charged with anything. The polling place opened, eventually, but not until about nine a.m., and it was chaos after that. And that was exactly the point. The goal in that precinct wasn’t outright fraud. It was about discouraging voters from the condo building – many of them likely Republicans – from voting. I don’t doubt that it worked.
My Chicago experience was a nightmare, but only for the first few hours. Once the polling place was up and running, it wasn’t so bad. The Democratic committeeman, the genius behind a devious strategy, came by with doughnuts. They weren’t even Krispy Kremes. The jerk.
That was not the case in Milwaukee, where the chaos continued for hours. Enabled by a state law passed with good intentions, which had unintended consequences. The road to hell and all that.